Dozens die in attack on Iraq marketplace

At least 40 civilians killed

police reportedly failed to respond


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Masked gunmen wielding rocket-launchers and grenades swarmed a predominantly Shiite Muslim market in a town south of the capital yesterday morning, firing at terrified men, women and children on the streets.

At least 42 Iraqi civilians were killed and dozens injured in the 30-minute rampage through the central market of Mahmoudiya, hospital officials said. The U.S. military said 40 people were killed and 90 injured in the incident.

Other local officials counted much higher casualty figures, and there were multiple reports that a second set of clashes broke out in the area later as darkness prevailed.

Three U.S. soldiers also were reported killed in separate combat incidents. One U.S. soldier serving in western Baghdad died of gunshot wounds yesterday, another died in a bomb blast south of Baghdad and a third was killed "due to enemy action" in western Al Anbar province, the military said.

Morgue officials reported the discovery of 32 bodies of Iraqi men, found with their hands bound, bodies bloodied and bullet wounds to the head in various parts of the capital.

Several large explosions could be heard in southern Baghdad as a nightly 9 p.m. curfew went into affect.

Residents and officials accused police of barricading themselves in their headquarters as the multipronged attack on the Mahmoudiya market unfolded, raising questions about the competency of Iraq's security forces as the U.S. attempts to hand authority over to local police and soldiers.

"The terrorists wanted to send a message saying we can attack anywhere we want and kill civilians," said Sheik Bassem Anizi, a municipal official in the area, who along with other witnesses was interviewed by telephone.

The town is in a deadly region south of the capital known locally as the "the triangle of death," close to where a group of U.S. soldiers allegedly raped an Iraqi girl and killed her and family in March and where two U.S. soldiers were kidnapped, mutilated and slain last month.

The marketplace, about 350 yards long and filled with humble shops, eateries, bakeries and ramshackle produce stands, is often filled in the morning with women and the elderly shopping for groceries and eating breakfast.

The gunmen, estimated to be at least 50 strong, swarmed the town's busy central market from the direction of nearby railroad tracks shortly before 9 a.m., driving into town in cars after firing mortar rounds.

They carried rocket-propelled grenade launchers, machine-guns, AK-47s and hand grenades, stepping out of their vehicles and shooting at fleeing residents.

They tossed grenades into restaurants, cafes and shops and, according to several witnesses, sprayed panicked residents with powerful machine guns mounted on the flatbeds of pickup trucks.

"There were dozens of them," said Majed Shammari, a government official eating his breakfast at a downtown restaurant when the shooting began. "I ran into a corner of the restaurant to avoid the shooting. Then I left the place and headed for the west of the city. It was still going on. I couldn't see anything. I only wanted to survive."

Panic was palpable, as residents found themselves fleeing for their lives.

"I saw the armed gunmen shooting randomly at the people," said Anizi, who hunkered down behind a concrete wall in a relative's hardware shop as the massacre proceeded. "Large numbers of people were running away, screaming. They were terrified. They were crying out loud, `Run away! Gunmen are coming!'"

At some point two cars exploded, possibly from grenades tossed inside them, witnesses said.

The U.S. military said Iraqi and American soldiers, hearing reports of at least eight explosions from the area, responded immediately and were shot at.

In a nearby house, they captured two suspected insurgents with two rocket-propelled grenade launchers, an AK-47 and a bag containing grenades.

There were no reported American, Iraqi army or police casualties, a fact that irked Mahmoudiya's mayor, Moayed Fadhel.

"It's a very, very bad sign," he said. "The subject needs to be investigated. The attack targeted civilians. It's the job of the security forces to protect civilians."

In other violence, fighting between U.S. and Iraqi forces in the western city of Ramadi left four Iraqis dead, a roadside bomb in a Christian neighborhood of Baghdad killed two, a bomb in Kirkuk killed an Iraqi soldier and a stray mortar shell in Basra killed an Iraqi woman.

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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